My summer salmon fishing
My salmon fishing is different from most everyone else's. At least, that's what I'm told. And since the literature around salmon fishing is based on "everyone else's" salmon fishing, I thought I'd tell you a little about mine. Optimally, my kindred spirits out there will read this and feel right at home.
"No, I've never fished the Miramichi" is a phrase I use often when talking to other salmon fishermen. And it's not because I don't want to fish the Miramichi and the others - I do. I just don't seem to have that opportunity right now. Income is part of it, but the other precious commodity in my life is time. I've got two young ones and a job that requires a lot of my attention. Someday.
Until then, I have much salmon fishing to do. Much. I'm a complete addict. I squeeze the hours in here and there, and I fish rivers nearby without the use of hotels or other lodging. My car sleeps two really well. If this is starting to sound a bit foreign to you, you're in for more surprises below. If you know exactly what I'm talking about, we should fish together sometime.
So what exactly is my Summer salmon fishing?
First off, let me say I live very close to a "traditional type" salmon river. In fact, I even learned to spey cast with a fifteeen footer in order to cover some of the lower pools more effectively. The Margaree River in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, has broad gravel shingles and an easy-wading bottom. The majority of the river is characterized by the smooth flowing "S" runs of a large, mature river. And while it has a good Summer run, I normally don't fish it until the Fall run in October. Instead, you can find me on some smaller rivers you've probably never heard of...
My Summer salmon rivers are small. They are public. Because of this the runs are accordingly "small". But then, what is a small run of fish? How many fish do you need in a small river? Put another way, if there's three to twenty fish in every pool, is the run still small? If the pools are only a two or five minute walk apart (and you're allowed to fish them all) is the river still small?
My fishing includes a night spent in the car and solitude on the water the next day. I used to sleep in a tent but it takes too much time away from fishing setting it up and taking it down. Through the weekdays my rivers are quite alone. It's very rare to meet up with another angler, and when I do, we talk for a short while and then make our separate ways. More often than not I have the whole river to myself.
So what is it like to fish these small rivers?
The nature of my rivers is thus. They start high in mountains of mixed vegetation, but are mostly hardwood. The headwaters are filled with peat making the water brown-stained after a rain. It takes some days before the stain washes out and the pools become clear again. Speaking of which, when these pools are low, the water is so clear it looks as though the salmon are suspended weightless over the rocks and there's no water at all. It's fascinating to watch their behavior over the course of many hours. Often I'll set my rod down and just sit overhead like an eagle or osprey and watch them shift and sometimes rise to explode the surface. I'm blessed to have the opportunity to watch these creatures in their natural state, undisturbed by anything.
As I've mentioned, the runs are relatively small and oftentimes there's fish in certain sections of the river, and not always dispersed throughout the pools. Therefore you have to know a couple things about the river. Things like: where the salmon congregate in low water; where they are in big water; where do the fresh ones stop first after a good rise in water; how long it takes them to move from pool to pool; and when is that particular run finished? Because of these conditions I am usually following a group of fish upriver. When a new group arrives, I go back down and start all over again.
Whereas the pools on the great rivers are broad and free flowing with grand shingles, my salmon pools are small, rugged troughs cut out of the mountain's rocky foundation. The water spills in the top, crashes back upon itself and stills momentarily before pouring over another set of falls. Like the native brook trout indigenous to the area, the salmon will often hold in the protected parts of the pool. But unlike their trout cousins who are there to feed opportunistically, the salmon position themselves here so as to take advantage of the current-breaking structures. The water here moves swift, and the last set of falls is only a few yards behind them. This is pocket water salmon fishing, and it's nothing like what you think of when you imagine traditional Atlantic Salmon fishing.
As if I were a mountain goat, I make my way from pool to pool. Literally. The river itself cuts a narrow 30 meter gorge through the forest of 100-year-old maple and beech. The path is little more than a 10 cm wide foot trail, because, frankly, there aren't too many of us fishing here. And precious few others visit for anything else. The path itself winds its way with the hillside and the pools are 15 meters or so directly below. A real mountain climber would love to join me for a day. From this vantage the pools and the lies can often be seen. The greyish-green shadow of a salmon's back can be seen against the backdrop of a giant underwater boulder near the tail of the pool. At this point you make your decision to scramble down the cliff, or move on. Again, I often watch the salmon's behavior before making the descent. If he looks like he's in a taking mood I'll surely make my way down.
Secrecy is the key
Crouched beside a boulder and allowing just my leader to flick out, I make my presentation to the salmon. Not exactly the "cast 45 degrees down-and-across; strip; retrieve; and step down" method here. Secrecy is the key. These salmon spook. The reaction of the salmon is watched carefully with each presentation. If there's a fluttering of the fins, the tip-up of a head, he will see more casts like the one which induced the reaction. If nothing, my strategy will change accordingly. Often in these cases an upstream presentation is needed. If the current is slow enough, a dry fly presentation is preferred. Again, with each change the salmon's reaction is monitored closely.
I believe the ability to study a salmon's behavior (either when being fished over or otherwise) is a significant departure from traditional salmon fishing. Having the ability to see if you're gaining the salmon's interest can be a huge asset. But if you're not careful in your presentation, it can be a huge deficit. However, the ability to watch their behavior allows you to turn many tenets in salmon fishing on their head. For example, do you normally cast upstream and dead-drift a sparsely tied #14 wet fly 8 cm over a salmon's nose? How about raising that wet fly like an emerging insect as you did so? In my Summer salmon fishing, this is often a deadly presentation. It took a lot of experimentation over reluctant fish to learn this.
My tackle is simple stuff. My rod is eight and a half feet long and my reel is a medium priced disc drag system. The rod itself is less than a hundred dollars. That's because the going can be rough and I often fall. If I break the rod I'm not going to lose any sleep. I've got another one just like it in the back of my car. My leader will vary greatly. Sometimes it's over 15 feet long with a steep taper for upstream dry fly fishing. Other times I have to switch to a sinking leader system for deeper holes with swift currents. Each new pool can sometimes necessitate a change of leader. My clothing is also simple. I rarely wear waders on these rivers. There's just too much walking and climbing involved. As long as it's not freezing (roughly June through late September) I wear nylon pants and sneakers to scale up and down these cliffs. I used to wear shorts but the black flies have convinced me otherwise. There's not much wading involved, only when I have to cross the river. Only in October do I grudgingly put the neoprene or lightweight waders on.
In the summer months dry flies are the order of the day. Ninety per cent of the salmon I release in the Summer are caught on dry flies. Big bushy buck bugs attract the most attention. But when a wet fly is called for, strange concoctions have elicited the most interest. How about muddlers of various colors with tiny, close-clipped heads? We've already mentioned the very small sizes. Of course, starting around mid-September, the normal assortment of Fall flies produce very well.
Not the normal style
I don't think I'd be on a limb saying this is not the normal style of salmon fishing. It happens to be my preferred style. In order to be an accomplished salmon fisherman I think one must strive to understand the river and the fish's behavior during the different states of that river. Therein lies success. Right now I'm still in the beginning stages of understanding these small rivers. My hope is that someday my intimacy with these rivers is such that I come to understand what her various moods will bring for my fishing. In this way, I suppose, all our salmon fishing is the same.